4.12.16

Anne Perry's A Christmas Journey

The historical mystery novel is Anne Perry’s forté. She is best known for her William Monk and Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series (see my blog on Paragon Walk), both set in Victorian England. From 2003 to 2007, she wrote a series of World War I mystery novels. In 2003, Anne Perry also published the first of her annual Victorian Christmas mysteries. Although all of her historical mysteries are skillfully written and highly readable, her Christmas novellas are my personal favourites (see my blog on A Christmas Secret). Indeed the holiday season would not be complete without them.

Anne Perry may be particularly skilled at writing murder mysteries because of her highly unusual experience – she is the one writer who has an insider's knowledge of murder. When she was teenager, she and a friend were convicted and sentenced for murder. It all began when the friend’s mother would not let Anne move to South Africa with the family. The pair of friends decided to kill the mother using a brick in a stocking. The girls served five years in prison and were given new identities at the end of their sentence. Anne eventually became a skilled writer, one who managed to keep her dark secret for 40 years.

A Christmas Journey begins with a holiday get-together at Apple-cross, a posh country mansion. Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, a wealthy Victorian socialite, witnesses the rivalry and cruel exchange of words between Gwendolyn Kilmuir and Isobel Alvie, two young widows. The next morning Gwendolyn is found dead, apparently by suicide. Everyone blames Isobel Alvie for the tragedy. The host, Omegus Jonus, invents a plan of atonement for Isobel – a journey to the Scottish highlands to break the tragic news to Gwendolyn’s mother. Lady Vespasia accompanies her friend on this harsh winter journey, a trip that is filled with a number of unexpected surprises.

Perry’s characters are drawn with penetrating psychological acumen. As The Wall Street Journal points out,
There is more to “A Christmas Journey” than a vexing puzzle neatly solved. This brief work has an almost Jamesian subtlety, and with its powerful message of responsibility and redemption – “We need both to forgive and to be forgiven” – it conveys a moral force in keeping with the season. (Nolan 2003)
Lady Vespasia is a particularly vivid and likeable character in the novel.

But what will remain in your mind long after finishing the book is the incredible journey through wild and inhospitable environments. No one describes windswept seasides and violent landscapes more effectively than Perry in her Christmas mystery novels. The journey in this novella is reminiscent of the harsh winter trek in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Isobel Alvie, like Sir Gawain, undertakes this snowbound journey in order to pass a moral test of character.

The stark contrast between murder and the season of goodwill has inspired many great novels (see my list of recommended Christmas mysteries). If you are looking for a suspenseful holiday mystery that is rich in character and setting, you will find it in A Christmas Journey.

Nolan, Tom. “Review / Books: Tidings of Murder and Suspense.” The Wall Street Journal. December 12, 2003.

Perry, Anne. A Christmas Journey. New York: Ballantyne, 2003.

6.11.16

Scott Smith's A Simple Plan

Scott Smith’s screenplay adaptation of his 1993 novel, A Simple Plan, was nominated for an Oscar award. The original book is a psychological thriller that is still in print today, both in paperback and e-book format. According to USA Today, A Simple Plan has sold well over a million copies. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA writing program, Scott gained the attention of two New York Times book reviewers with this first novel. Unlike so many bestselling authors though, Scott is not prolific. In 2006, he published his only other book, The Ruins. According to Scott, he spends the majority of his time scriptwriting instead.

A Simple Plan is the story of “what happens to a group of ordinary people when they are suddenly placed in a decidedly extraordinary situation” (Kakutani 2006). The novel begins with Hank and brother Jacob visiting their parent’s grave on New Year’s Eve. Jacob’s friend Lou accompanies them on the first part of the trip. Jacob’s dog flees into the woods after they make an unexpected stop. When the men go in search of the dog, they stumble upon the wreckage of a small plane. Inside the plane, they find a dead pilot and a duffle bag containing 4.4 million dollars.

Jacob and Lou propose splitting the money between the three men. Hank strongly opposes the idea. But as the three men talk, Hank’s initial resolve waivers. He eventually concocts a “simple plan” that will let the trio get away with the theft. The shocking events that result from this decision make for captivating reading.

The narrative is told in the first person; we see events from Hank’s perspective and identify with the well-intentioned protagonist. From the minute he teams up with Jacob and Lou, we suspect the worst. Both men are untrustworthy and the plot keeps us in high suspense throughout the entire novel.

The New York Times called A Simple Plan a “beautifully controlled and disturbing first novel” (Brown 1993). What is especially disquieting is the way Hank loses his moral compass and sinks into criminal activity. Hank is no psychopath; he is a regular citizen like the reader. But the ease with which he slides from grand theft robbery to murder makes us realize the potential in all of us. As Kakutani (1993) observes,
Mr. Smith provides an emotionally vivid chronicle of Hank’s decision to steal the money, giving the reader a compelling account of how an ordinary, law-abiding citizen might come to commit a crime.
Hank, Jacob, Lou, and Sarah are all psychologically probing portraits. If you like suspense thrillers with strong characterization and a riveting plot, you will truly enjoy A Simple Plan. Brown, Rosellen. “Choosing Evil: One Bad Thing Leads to a Worse Thing in This Novel.” The New York Times. September 19, 1993. Kakutani, Michiko. “Plotter’s Stupidity Saved by Stupidity of Others.” The New York Times. September 3, 1993. Kakutani, Michiko. “A Mexican Vacation, Interrupted by Killer Plants.” The New York Times. July 18, 2006. Smith, Scott. A Simple Plan. 1993. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

2.10.16

Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance

The approach of Halloween is a perfect time to read a book by Ann Radcliffe, the mistress of the Gothic novel. Although she lived until 62, she is remembered for a brief 8-year time-span. Between the ages of 25 and 33, she wrote 5 novels that made her a literary legend. Amazingly enough, at the height of fame and fortune, she retired her pen and lived a contented but secluded life with her journalist husband (Miles 1995, 24-27).

A highly private person, Ann Radcliffe remains an unknown figure to us today. When Christina Rossetti decided to write Radcliffe’s biography, she had to abandon the project for lack of information (Miles 1995, 21).

What we do know is that her first two novels – The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789) and A Sicilian Romance (1790) sold well. By the time she published her third novel, The Romance of the Forest (1791), Radcliffe could essentially set her own price. Her fourth novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), was a blockbuster at the time, establishing her reputation across Europe. The Italian (1797) was also very popular with readers. (Grant 1951). According to Murray (1972), Radcliffe achieved fame that no novelist before her had ever done, not even Henry Fielding or Samuel Richardson (19).

In A Sicilian Romance, the Marquis of Mazzina demands that his daughter Julia marry a wealthy Count whom she does not love. On the eve of her wedding, Julia breaks out of the castle and flees for her life. She is eventually pursued by the Marquis, the Count, and their servants through caverns, monasteries, underground vaults, and winding castle corridors. The narrative is filled with tension-filled suspense and numerous surprises. Inset stories and subplots expand upon the theme of tyrannical parental authority and the plight of women in the 18th century.

The suspenseful plot and mysterious atmosphere of the eighteenth-century Gothic novel greatly influenced later mystery novelists (see my blog on the Gothic impact on the mystery novel). Few authors make more effective use of haunting settings than Ann Radcliffe. Typical features of the Gothic novel such as, “battered castles, abbeys, subterranean passages, flickering candles, bats, rusty locks, creaking doors, dungeons, skulls, blood-encrusted daggers, darkness, dankness, and mold” (Murray 1972, 14), provide a fitting backdrop to Radcliffe’s narratives of psychological suspense.

A Sicilian Romance is not noteworthy for characters. Nor will you read it for the language; the prose is stilted and artificial. What you will enjoy is the exciting plot and the haunting setting.

The novel is still in print after two centuries; this public domain book is freely available from the Gutenberg site. If you are in the mood for a ghostly tale set in exotic 16th century Sicily, do not miss A Sicilian Romance.

Grant, Aline. Ann Radcliffe: A Biography. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1951.

Miles, Robert. Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Murray, E. B. Ann Radcliffe. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. 1790. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

4.9.16

Dan Brown's Inferno

When The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, it became one of the biggest blockbuster novels ever written. Since then, Dan Brown has faced the Herculean task of having to equal that success. The 2009 Lost Symbol (see my blog post on it), although selling extremely well, came nowhere close to its predecessor. And according to Publisher’s Weekly, Inferno’s debut was, in turn, less successful than The Lost Symbol. But because Inferno is a Dan Brown novel, it still did very well. Doubleday reported that in the first five days, it sold more than a million copies.

The story begins with the Harvard professor and symbologist, Robert Langdon, awakening in a hospital with amnesia. He has no idea how he got there, what country he is in, why he is having hallucinatory dreams, or, most importantly, why an assassin has walked into his hospital room and tries to shoot him. He escapes from the shooter by escaping with a young doctor. Langdon spends the rest of his time fleeing from unknown enemies and trying to figure out why he is carrying a suspected biological weapon. Surprises, plot twists, ciphers, and cryptograms dominate the narrative.

Janet Maslin (2013) points out that
there is even a twist built into its 14/5/13 publication date, a numerical anagram of the 3.1415, the approximate value of pi. Why? Because Dante divided hell into circles. Because pi is a hint about measuring them. And because Mr. Brown’s readership has never met an embedded secret it didn’t like.
Inferno is a curious combination of thriller, travel guide, and non-fiction. The novel provides copious amounts of information on Italy, art history, the Renaissance, and of course, Dante’s Inferno.

If you like books that are part mystery and part nonfiction, you will love the novel. But Inferno does not incorporate the fictional and nonfictional sides of the book quite as seamlessly as does his previous two novels. Lengthy descriptions of art history and Italian cities seem strangely out of place in the James-Bond-like, chase-dominated plot sequences. The Washington Post observes, “the book’s musty passageways seem to be not so much holding history up as sagging under its weight. Narration appears lifted from a Fodor’s guide. . .”

If you enjoy what Maslin (2013) calls Brown’s “breakneck, brain-teasing capers,” and if you would like to know more about Florence, Venice, Renaissance art, and Dante’s work, Inferno will exceed your expectations.

Brown, Dan. Inferno. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

Maslin, Janet. “On a Scavenger Hunt to Save Most Humans.” The New York Times. May 12, 2013.

7.8.16

Michael Koryka's The Cypress House

Blending “gritty noir and ghostly visions,” Michael Koryka’s The Cypress House will remind readers of his acclaimed Gothic narrative, So Cold the River (Kirkus Reviews 2010). Kortya published four conventional mysteries in his Lincoln Perry series before attempting to write these unique standalone novels. The Cypress House perfects what So Cold the River introduced – a mystery novel that blends suspense, horror and the supernatural. Marilyn Stasio identifies The Cypress House and The Ridge (Koryta’s next novel) as the best supernatural mysteries of 2011.

Michael Koryka graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice, worked as a newspaper reporter, taught at the Indiana University School of Journalism, and was employed as a private investigator (see his website for additional details on his life).. He wrote his first novel as a freshman in college and although it was rejected, wrote a second one that won an Edgar Allan Poe nomination for best first novel.

When asked to describe the plot of the novel, Koryta replied: “The protagonist, Arlen Wagner, was plagued by premonitions of death during his days on the battlefield. Years later the visions return, and convince him to leave a train in an isolated stretch of Florida. A hurricane forces him to take refuge at a tavern called the Cypress House, which is owned by a woman who seems to be operating at the instruction of local gangsters” (“Q & A with Michael Koryta,” 2011).

Collette Bancroft (2011) identifies the novel as a “gripping noir thriller-ghost story.” Set during the Depression, it is also a powerful combination of historical fiction and supernatural mystery. “Never less than gripping and with the element of the supernatural blending strangely seamlessly with the murderous reality, Koryta,” as The Times (2011) observes, “has crafted a noir novel that simultaneously echoes the 1948 film Key Largo [about the 1935 hurricane] starring Humphrey Bogart, and the Eagles’ Hotel California.”

Although an unlikely setting for terror, the Gulf Coast of Florida is the location of what Alison Flood describes as an “eerie and unsettling thriller.” The setting is indeed hauntingly evocative. “However counterintuitive,” writes Koch (2011), Koryta “makes this curious mix of supernatural prescience and gothic-noir work with a seamless atmospheric certainty.”

Reading the novel may remind some readers of Steinbeck’s work. It has the same intensity as Of Mice and Men, another story about two men combating powerful social forces during the Depression.

Each of the characters in the novel is richly drawn and convincingly portrayed. Arlen Wagner is a particular compelling character, an individual shaped by his experiences in the Great War.

Kirkus Reviews (2010) sums up the novel best: “A commanding performance in the field of supernatural noir.”

Bancroft, Collette. “Young Novelist’s Latest Is Scary Good.” St. Petersburg Times. January 23, 2011.

Koryta, Michael. The Cypress House. New York: Little, Brown, 2011.

“Koryta, Michael: The Cypress House.” Kirkus Reviews. November 1, 2010.

Millar, Peter. “A Deadly Pandora’s Box.” The Times. March 26, 2011.

“Q & A with Michael Koryta.” Sunday Telegraph. February 27, 2011.

3.7.16

James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

For half a century, the legendary P. D. James has written Adam Dalgliesh mystery novels. (See my blogs on A Mind to Murder and The Private Patient.) She has won every major award for mystery writing and now, in her mid-nineties, is showing no signs of slowing down. Indeed, Baroness James of Holland Park is still “whip sharp” according to interviewer, Nick Ahad. In 1972 and 1982, James put aside her Dalgliesh series to write two Cordelia Gray mysteries: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Skull Beneath the Skin. These highly readable novels are still in print and ebook format today.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman begins with twenty-two-year-old Cordelia Gray arriving at work one morning. She discovers Bernie, her partner in the private-eye firm, locked in his office, dead from suicide. A new partner in the firm, Cordelia must now run the struggling business on her own. Her first case is to investigate why a scientist’s son committed suicide. Cornelia travels to the victim’s cottage in Cambridge and discovers that he has been murdered, a finding that puts her own life in jeopardy.

James is well known for her clever and intriguing plots. As early as 1977, critics applauded her narrative skills. The Times observed that in each of her novels, “a puzzle is put before us, with evident interest in it for its own sake, something which other writers in the genre who have ventured to extend its bounds have by no means always managed to retain” (Keating 1977).

The many unexpected plot twists in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman keep us in high suspense. Even the end of the novel contains a number of surprises. On her website, James offers the following advice to budding mystery novel writers: “Tension should be held within the novel and there should be no longuers of boring interrogation.” James is the master of such narrative tension.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, like all her mystery novels, follows the “rules of fair play”:
James always makes sure that information available to the detective is available to the reader. “By the end of the book, the reader should have been able to arrive at the real solution from clues inserted into the novel.” Of course, she also admits that you can provide these clues with “deceptive cunning but essential fairness.”
The New York Times praised James’s “insight into character” (Callendar 1973). Indeed what is especially notable in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is James’s astute depiction of Cordelia Grey. The Times calls her “charming, practical and above all believable” (Keating 1977). Cordelia is a particular likeable character, a spunky survivor in the midst of adversity, danger, and sheer bad luck.

The idyllic Cambridge setting creates an old-world atmosphere that is charming and engaging. Mark Callendar’s Cambridge cottage becomes temporary lodgings for Cordelia. She thinks of this cottage as “a little oasis of order and beauty” in the midst of “chaos and neglect” (chap. 2). Finding order in chaos is the business of the detective novel, and one that provides a strong appeal for readers.

In their starred review, Kirkus claims that An Unsuitable Job for a Woman “upholds the best of the British tradition.” You will agree with Kirkus that the novel is “an impeccable pleasure to read.”

Callendar, Newgate. “Criminals at Large.” New York Times. April 22, 1973.

James, P. D. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. 1972. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011.

Keating, H. R. F. “Fiction: Strictly Classical Murder.” The Times. March 12, 1977.

James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

For half a century, the legendary P. D. James has written Adam Dalgliesh mystery novels. (See my blogs on A Mind to Murder and The Private Patient.) She has won every major award for mystery writing and now, in her mid-nineties, is showing no signs of slowing down. Indeed, Baroness James of Holland Park is still “whip sharp” according to interviewer, Nick Ahad. In 1972 and 1982, James put aside her Dalgliesh series to write two Cordelia Gray mysteries: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Skull Beneath the Skin. These highly readable novels are still in print and ebook format today.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman begins with twenty-two-year-old Cordelia Gray arriving at work one morning. She discovers Bernie, her partner in the private-eye firm, locked in his office, dead from suicide. A new partner in the firm, Cordelia must now run the struggling business on her own. Her first case is to investigate why a scientist’s son committed suicide. Cornelia travels to the victim’s cottage in Cambridge and discovers that he has been murdered, a finding that puts her own life in jeopardy.

James is well known for her clever and intriguing plots. As early as 1977, critics applauded her narrative skills. The Times observed that in each of her novels, “a puzzle is put before us, with evident interest in it for its own sake, something which other writers in the genre who have ventured to extend its bounds have by no means always managed to retain” (Keating 1977).

The many unexpected plot twists in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman keep us in high suspense. Even the end of the novel contains a number of surprises. James is undoubtedly the master of such narrative tension.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, like all her mystery novels, follows the “rules of fair play." James always makes sure that information available to the detective is available to the reader.

The New York Times praised James’s “insight into character” (Callendar 1973). Indeed what is especially notable in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is James’s astute depiction of Cordelia Grey. The Times calls her “charming, practical and above all believable” (Keating 1977). Cordelia is a particular likeable character, a spunky survivor in the midst of adversity, danger, and sheer bad luck.

The idyllic Cambridge setting creates an old-world atmosphere that is charming and engaging. Mark Callendar’s Cambridge cottage becomes temporary lodgings for Cordelia. She thinks of this cottage as “a little oasis of order and beauty” in the midst of “chaos and neglect” (chap. 2). Finding order in chaos is the business of the detective novel, and one that provides a strong appeal for readers.

In their starred review, Kirkus claims that An Unsuitable Job for a Woman “upholds the best of the British tradition.” You will agree with Kirkus that the novel is “an impeccable pleasure to read.”

Callendar, Newgate. “Criminals at Large.” New York Times. April 22, 1973.

James, P. D. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. 1972. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011.

Keating, H. R. F. “Fiction: Strictly Classical Murder.” The Times. March 12, 1977.

5.6.16

Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent


The Time cover story on Scott Turow begins with courtroom instructions: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. You have heard the charges against my client. The prosecution argues that with malice aforethought he wrote a novel, Presumed Innocent, with the intent of willfully endangering the sleep habits and on-the-job efficiency of millions of innocent readers. Furthermore, it has been claimed that my client is remorseless.”

Mystery writers have rarely been chosen for the cover of Time. But given the fact that Turow burst upon the literary scene with Presumed Innocent, a legal mystery which won the prestigious Silver Dagger award, remained on the New York Times’s bestseller for 43 weeks, went through 16 hardcover printings, sold 4 million paperback copies, was translated into 18 languages, and was awarded the biggest advance ever for a first-time writer from publishers Farr, Straus & Giroux, it is not surprising that Turow was chosen.

In Presumed Innocent, we first meet Chief Deputy Prosecutor Rusty Sabich at the funeral of Carolyn Polhemus, a colleague and former lover who was raped and brutally murdered. Rusty must investigate the case while also coming to terms with his adultery with Carolyn and her final rejection of him. The situation is further complicated by political circumstances – the Chief Prosecuting Attorney is running for re-election and does not want the publicity surrounding the case to jeopardize his prospects. The case takes a bizarre turn when Rusty is identified as the prime suspect in the case. The story is riveting and the ending will make you want to reread the book.

Turow wrote the novel while working as an assistant U.S. district attorney, a truly remarkable feat. This Harvard graduate, accomplished author, and former Stanford University creative writing instructor still practices law. According to his online biography, Turow focuses on white collar criminal defense cases and devotes time to pro bono matters. He has written a number of books, including 2 nonfiction works; these books have sold more than 25 million copies. In 2010 he wrote, Innocent, a sequel to Presumed Innocent.

CNN identifies Turow as “the father of the legal thriller.” His expertise on legal matters provides him with the inside knowledge that makes Presumed Innocent a convincing and realistic courtroom drama. But Turow is more than a legal expert. He is a skilled storyteller, an insightful observer of society, and an accomplished stylist. In Presumed Innocent, he “combines immense writing talent and considerable legal experience to create an impressive and unusual fiction debut. From page 1, the book consciously transcends the murder-mystery genre, combining whodunit suspense with an elegant style and philosophical voice,” observes Anne Rice in her New York Times review of the novel.

This legal mystery has affinities with the classic British detective novel. Rice points out that
as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that almost everybody in the novel knew Carolyn. Almost everybody knows everybody else. . . . In sum, this sordid, big-city murder story has the delicious closed quality of the classic country-house mystery, in which anybody from the butler to the visiting Russian cousin might have committed the crime.
Corruption both within and without the legal system is depicted in the novel. Time observes that Turow has made his mark as an author by dramatizing the limits of legalisms: “Both Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof weave and coil intricately around the same point: without the law, civilized life is impossible; with the law, civilized life is only nearly impossible.”

Although Turow’s legal background gives him a decided edge on other writers of legal mysteries, it has also proved to be a drawback. Legal details tend to overwhelm Presumed Innocent. As Symons observes, “the relentless mass of detail about court procedure ends by dulling appreciation of Turow’s expertise” (1992, 312).

But most readers will agree with Rice’s assessment that “Presumed Innocent is without doubt an ambitious and absorbing novel, the work of a profoundly gifted writer with a fine, distinctive voice.”

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.

Turow, Scott. Presumed Innocent. New York: Grand Central, 1987.

1.5.16

Harlan Coben's Tell No One

Harlan Coben’s mystery series featuring former college basketball star Myron Bolitar has won a number of awards – the Anthony and the Edgar for Deal Breaker, and the Shamus (Best Private Eye Novel) for Fade Away. Although these books have attracted a solid fan base, it is Coben’s stand-alone thrillers that have garnered a particularly impressive following. Tell No One (2001), Coben’s first novel in this genre, as Guttridge observes, is “a pulsing, pacy, devour-at-one-sitting thriller that . . . engendered a four-day bidding war in Hollywood” (Guttridge 2001).

The story begins with a night swim at an old haunt in celebration of a young couple’s anniversary. After Elizabeth emerges from the water, David realizes that it is too quiet. He calls her name, waits in silence, then hears her scream. David is hit by a baseball bat and falls unconscious into the water.

Fast forward eight years and David is now a widowed paediatrician who is unable to get past the death of his wife. On their anniversary, he receives a mysterious email containing clues that suggest his wife is alive. Events then begin to spiral out of control in this fast-paced, gripping narrative. “I don’t remember the last time I felt so driven to finish a novel,” admits St Petersburg reviewer, Jean Heller (2001). “And the final 30 pages, well, you’ll see.”

When David tells his sister Shauna that he thinks his wife is alive, she asks, “If Elizabeth was alive, where has she been for eight years? Why choose now of all times to come back from the grave – the same time, by coincidence, that the FBI starts suspecting you of killing her?” (102). Shauna believes that federal agents are playing “mind games” with David by sending him fake emails.

There is no one who enjoys playing mind games more than Harlan Coben: “I love to fool you once, I love to fool you twice, I love to fool you a third time,” he admitted in an interview with The Telegraph. “And just when you think it’s all over, I have what I call that Carrie hand-out-of-the-grave moment. Just when you think it’s all over, I’m going to hit you with just one more.”

What is the secret of his success? He told CBS news that for him a story must be compelling and gripping: “Every sentence has to be something people want to read. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said, ‘I try to cut out all the parts you’d normally skip’” (Gumbel 2001).

Coben creates his extraordinary narratives out of ordinary circumstances. As he himself claims:
“I don’t write the book where it’s a conspiracy reaching the prime minister; I don’t write the book with the big serial killer who lops off heads,” he says. “My setting is a very placid pool of suburbia, family life. And within that I can make pretty big splashes.”
Those who love suspense-filled psychological thrillers will not be disappointed in Tell No One.

“Author Harlan Coben Discusses His New Book, ‘Tell No One.’” Interview by Bryant Gumbel, CBS: The Early Show. June 19, 2001.

Coben, Harlan. Tell No One. New York: Dell, 2001.

Heller, Jean. “Tell No One.” St. Petersburg Times. June 17, 2001.

3.4.16

Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Man in Lower Ten

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s career as a turn-of-the-century novelist began as a result of financial disaster. Her husband lost their savings in the stock market forcing the family into serious debt. Rinehart’s first novel. The Man in Lower Ten, was accepted for serial publication in 1907. When it was published in book form two years later, it became the first American mystery novel to make the annual bestseller books list (DuBose 2000, 51).

Together with The Circular Staircase (see my blog on the novel), The Man in Lower Ten catapulted Rinehart into literary fame. Her mystery novels were some of the most widely read books of the time. Over a century later these novels are still in print and can be found as free public-domain e-books. (See, for example, the list of her books on the Gutenberg site).

In many respects, Mary Roberts Rinehart was a notable woman of her era. DuBose (2000) points out that she was:
the first American mystery writer to enter the bestseller ranks; a household name that repeatedly appeared in the Most Admired lists favoured by women’s magazines; an associate of kings, queens, presidents, generals, and movie moguls; a Republican feminist who rated burial in Arlington National Cemetery. (35)
The crime in The Man in Lower Ten takes place on a train (a type of enclosed setting that Agatha Christie would put to good use two decades later). Lawyer Lawrence Blakely, who must deliver important trial documents to a client, takes an overnight berth on a train from Washington to Pittsburg. In the middle of the night, his documents are stolen and a man is murdered. Immediately Blakely becomes the prime suspect in the case. The train then crashes, killing most of the people onboard.

The Man in Lower Ten is an intricately plotted mystery story. Indeed, skillful plotting and exciting stories are what Rinehart excels at. Rarely does she include an extraneous character in these cleverly worked out narratives (DuBose 2000, 48, 79).

Rinehart’s characters are typically “upper-middle-class professionals or wealthy and socially prominent” (DuBose 2000, 50). Although the main characters in The Man in Lower Ten are portrayed in a fairly stereotypical manner, the housekeeper and amateur detective are depicted with wit and imagination.

The Man in Lower Ten is also a novel of manners, providing a glimpse of the culture and life of early twentieth-century Americans.

Rinehart is one of the earliest novelists to combine mystery with romance. Modern readers, however, will find the romantic scenes overly sentimentalized.

A gripping plot, witty voice, and faithful depiction of Edwardian America are what makes this novel highly readable. Rinehart’s novels prove that “the ‘golden age’ was by no means an English or between-the-wars phenomenon” (Knight 2004, 84).

DuBose, Martha Hailey. “Mary Roberts Rinehart: The Buried Story.” in Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, 34-88. 1907. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Knight, Stephen.
Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity
. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Rinehart, Mary Roberts. The Man in Lower Ten. 1907. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2007.

6.3.16

Owen Laukkanen’s Criminal Enterprise

Owen Laukkanen’s Stevens and Windermere series blurs the line between ordinary individuals and criminals. The first two novels in the series begin with an intriguing scenario of law-abiding citizens turning to crime. Laukkanen, a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program, started his career by reporting on gambling tournaments around the world. “Despite knowing next to nothing about the game,” writes Medley (2012), “Laukkanen was hired by a website called PokerListings.com and spent . . . three years jet-setting from Monaco to Macau, covering poker tournaments in some of the glitziest casinos in the world.” Laukkanen’s observation of gamblers living on the edge informs and enriches his depiction of characters who throw caution to the wind.

The Professionals, his first novel featuring FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota state investigator Kirk Stevens, was nominated for an Anthony Award. It features four college graduates who turn to a life of crime as an alternative to a minimum-wage existence. Criminal Enterprise, his second novel, is the story of an accountant (Carter Tomlin) who has it all – a lovely wife, two daughters, and a prosperous suburban existence. When he loses his job and falls deep into debt, he decides that one bank robbery will solve his problems. But once hooked on the danger and excitement, this suburban husband and father starts leading an amazing double life.

What really distinguishes this novel is the way Laukkanen depicts the transformation from law-abiding citizen to hardened criminal. Cannon (2013) observes, “As Bonnie and Clyde knew, robbing banks gives you more than cash; it gives you a rush of pure adrenalin that leads, inevitably, to Very Bad Things. Windermere and Stevens have to catch Tomlin before those things happen.”

Tomlin’s gradual escalation of delinquent behaviour is skilfully presented. Like Frances Iles’s Malice Aforethought (see my blog), the seemingly serene life of a suburban couple, masks deep underlying problems.

By blurring the distinction between citizen and felon, Laukkanen suggests that we all have the seeds of criminality within us. “I like the idea”, he tells The National Post, “of people reaching the end of the book and not knowing who to cheer for.”

Although Carter Tomlin occupies centre stage in Criminal Enterprise, investigators Windemere and Stevens are also characters you will not forget. As Tran (2013) observes, “Windermere, Stevens, and Tomlin are strikingly realistic characters sharing varying degrees of dissatisfaction with their lives, and readers will identify with their struggles to reconcile their own needs with their responsibilities to others.”

In its starred review, Kirkus concludes, “Fans of crime thrillers shouldn’t miss this one or anything else with Laukkanen’s name on the cover. The writing is so crisp, the pages almost want to turn themselves. He’s a terrific storyteller.” Readers will agree with Library Journal’s verdict: “This is a terrific Great Recession thriller whose postmodern amorality grips from the beginning.” Anyone who enjoys exciting thrillers and explorations of the criminal psyche will love this novel.

Cannon, Margaret. “Crime Fiction.” The Globe and Mail. March 2, 2013.

Laukkanen, Owen. Criminal Enterprise. New York: Penguin, 2013.

Mendley, Mark. “The Criminal Mind of Owen Laukkanen.” The National Post. May 10, 2012.

Tran, Christine. “Criminal Enterprise.” Booklist 109, no. 11 (2013): 28.

7.2.16

Phillip DePoy's December's Thorn

Actor, playwright, director, and author of two mystery series, Phillip DePoy is a man of many talents. He created the theatre major program for Clayton State University and became its first director (see his website for more autobiographical details). In 2002, DePoy won the Edgar Award for Easy, a play featuring a private investigator. His 7th novel in the Fever Devilin series – December’s Thorn – received a starred review from Kirkus in 2012.

The novel starts with a folktale beginning: “Five nights before Christmas, a stranger came to my door. She was dressed in widow’s black, pale and gaunt, and appeared to be half-frozen by the icy rain” (1). The narrator – a folklorist and former college instructor recovering from a coma – is shocked when this stranger introduces herself as his wife. Fever Devilin does not know who she is; even worse, he is engaged to another woman. Readers begin to wonder if the stranger is real or a figment of Devilin’s imagination. Or is there “a conjunction between myth and reality?” asks Kirkus. “Nobody is better at misdirection than DePoy.”

Readers are drawn into a strange and memorable story in which a sheriff, a young boy who claims to be Devilin’s son, and a psychiatrist all become enmeshed in a mysterious and danger-filled series of events.

The novel takes place in Blue Mountain, a small town in Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains. The atmosphere is both other-worldly and mysterious. The boundary line between reality and fantasy is blurred, a technique that keeps readers guessing throughout the entire story. The clever use of myth and folklore adds a rich layer of meaning to the narrative. Dr. Ceridan Nelsen, for example is described as “a fertility goddess, a poetic muse, and even, sometimes, . . . the Lady of the Lake in the Arthurian cycle” (22).

DePoy’s roots as a playwright are obvious in his skilful use of witty dialogue, particularly the clever repartee between Devilin and Nelson. Although associated with myth, DePoy’s characters are rooted in authenticity.

December’s Thorn will appeal to readers who love quirky characters, an otherworldly atmosphere, and mythic symbolism – but “fans of southern-gothic mystery will [particularly] love this one” (Alesi, 2012).

Alesi, Stacy. “December’s Thorn.” Booklist. December 1, 2012.

DePoy, Phillip. December’s Thorn. New York: Minotaur Books, 2013.

3.1.16

Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room


If you are looking for a mystery novel with a truly remarkable plot, try Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room. The original French version (Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune) was first published serially in the newspaper L’Illustration in 1907, then in book form in 1908. More than a century later, it is still in print today. Leroux was a man of many talents. A famous novelist, a drama critic, and an investigative reporter, he covered stories from around the world and reported on such events as the 1905 Russian Revolution. He also studied law and was a court reporter for the newspaper, L’Echo de Paris. What he is most famous for is The Phantom of the Opera, a novel with many notable film and stage adaptations. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 award-winning adaptation of the novel became one of the most well-known musicals of the era.

Leroux also wrote a series of mystery novels starring the 18-year-old detective, Joseph Rouletabille. The most celebrated of these is The Mystery of the Yellow Room, a book that some consider “the finest work of crime fiction in the history of the genre” (Platten 2009, 22). The story begins with a newspaper account of an attempted murder of the daughter (Mlle. Stangerson) of a famous scientist. She is incapacitated for most of the novel and unable to provide information about her attack. Although she is heavily guarded, she is hunted down repeatedly by her would-be-murderer.

What immediately grips the reader is the utterly impossible nature of the crime. The narrator Sainclair calls it “the most monstrous and most mysterious crime” he had ever heard of in his career” (109). Leroux hoped to create an even cleverer locked-room mystery than the ones written by Poe and Doyle. In The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the attempted murder occurs in Mlle. Stangerson’s bedroom, a place securely locked from the inside, both window and door. When Rouletabille observes that “the yellow room was as tightly shut as an iron safe,” Sainclair replies, “That is why this murder is the most surprising that I know. Edgar Allan Poe, in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ invented nothing like it” (71). The ending of the novel will take readers by complete surprise with what Knight calls its “startlingly unpredictable revelations” (2004, 81).

Like John Dickson Carr (see my post on The Three Coffins), Gaston Leroux created a mystery that appears supernaturally executed. The narrator observes that the Gothic-like Chateau du Glandier (see my post on the Gothic), is “a place seemingly designed to be the theatre of mysteries, terror, and death” (36). The haunting atmosphere is perfectly suited to a ghostly crime in which the murderer seems to disappear into thin air.

When the attempted murder takes place, Mlle. Stangerson’s scientist father is working on a ground-breaking investigation on the dissociation of matter. This research, Schüett points out, “though never central to the narrative, nonetheless informs it” (2003, 69). The essential attribute of the attacker, the ability to disappear at will, “parodies the principles underpinning Monsieur Stangerson’s research” (Plattern 2009, 24).

One of the strongest appeals of the novel is the character of the detective. The brilliant young reporter, Rouletabille, is a “much younger, smarter, French brother of Sherlock Holmes,” a detective who “spots clues that everyone else has missed, makes deductive leaps no one else is imaginative enough to contemplate and throws out cryptic remarks to his Dr. Watson, the lawyer Sainclair, which goes to the heart of the puzzle” (Shephard and Rennison 2006, 96).

Agatha Christie was strongly influenced by Leroux’s mystery stories; she used the same country house settings and skillful clue-puzzle plots (Schüett 2003, 69). If you enjoy puzzling crimes, atmospheric settings, and intriguing plots, you will agree with Shephard and Rennison who claim that The Yellow Room Mystery is “one of the greatest of all ‘locked room’ mysteries” (2006, 96).

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Leroux, Gaston. The Mystery of the Yellow Room. 1908. New York: Arno Press, 1976.

Platten, David. “Origins and Beginnings: The Emergence of Detective Fiction in France.” In French Crime Fiction, edited by Claire Gorrara, 14-35. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 2009.

Schüett, Sita A. “French Crime Fiction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman, 59-76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Shephard, Richard and Nick Rennison. 100 Must-Read Crime Fiction Novels. London: A & C Black, 2006.